Mental Health Awareness week provided a much-needed platform for discussions and information around a critical health issue. Both mental and physical well-being are vital for living a fulfilling life, yet it remains harder to seek help for one than the other.
In this article, I wanted to highlight an insightful article published by the NHS Confederation. The Rise in Mental Health Demand* focuses on the volume and severity of mental health cases in children and young people.
The Pandemic and Young People’s Mental Well-being
In March 2020, all schools in the UK were closed, to all but the children of key workers, for the first time in history. Such a dramatic decision was made to curb the rapid spread of Covid-19 and to save lives. Although early reports recognised that children and young people were largely a low-risk group, mixing in school ran the risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19.
Many children initially relished the thought of not having to go to school. The freedom from early wake-up calls, school bus journeys, bullies and exams seemed like a dream. However, no school didn’t mean no work. Online lessons were organised and work had to be completed without the usual support networks.
With parents and siblings also working from home, many families struggled with finding the space, quiet and support for remote learning. Isolation from friends was an issue along with the uncertainty of what was to come. When schools reopened in May 2020, most children were keen to get back.
Mask wearing, social distancing and group bubbles made the return to school anything but normal. Clubs and social activities were cancelled and a single positive case could send the entire bubble back into a fortnight of isolation.
As if those pressures and restrictions weren’t enough, the country went back into lockdown from October 2020 until March 2021. A long, tough winter for many.
Covid Risk and Impact
Although the risk of serious effects from contracting Covid-19 has always been low for children and young people, the impact of restrictions, isolation and uncertainty on mental health has been high. The NHS Confederation article reports a 77% increase in mental health referrals, compared to pre-Covid.
Under-investment already meant that in the year to February 2020, only 40% of children and young people with diagnosable mental health disorders were able to access support. By February of this year, new referrals for under 18s totalled 66,113 and it is more difficult than ever to get help.
The report identifies serious eating disorders as a way in which young people are expressing their need to regain control and deal with complex emotions. The NHS has seen a marked increase in both the volume and severity of eating disorder cases.
The Need for Early Intervention for Young People’s Well-being
It is widely accepted that early intervention leads to the most successful outcomes. If issues can be identified and addressed in the early stages, the level of support needed to turn things around is relatively low. In contrast, barriers to diagnosis and long waiting lists for essential services increase the risk of disorders becoming chronic. With increased severity comes the greater risk of long-term, life-limiting conditions.
Whilst firefighting the most serious of cases, the resources to put early intervention into place are minimal. The NHS Confederation is asking for more investment in early intervention resources, including in-school services. The UK Government is currently funding 112 Mental Health Support Teams who will take up roles in education establishments. This is part of their commitment to increase access to services, reduce waiting times and improve outcomes.**
As the founder of Mindset, I am particularly focused on researching, reporting and informing universities and other education establishments on issues relating to student mental health. With raised awareness of the issues, campus teams can become better equipped in spotting the signs and implementing clear pathways to support.
Well-being whilst Waiting
There is also a noticeable lack of support for children and young people who are on a waiting list for mental health support. According to the Centre for Mental Health data,** the average waiting time for routine cases is 9 weeks for an appointment and 13 weeks before starting treatment. During this time, the young people are vulnerable and their families are also likely to be struggling.
Some health authorities are allocating provisions to those waiting for diagnosis and treatment. This can take the form of self-care resources and regular communication. Any action to support those who have been referred to Mental Health services will help to reduce the risk of harm.
Children and young people have experienced the challenges of a pandemic at a pivotal moment in their development. The full impact of social isolation and uncertainty is yet to be fully understood, yet it has driven up demand for mental health services. We need to provide for these young people, so that they can go on to live full lives, without long term dependence on health providers.